Building Empathy with Virtual Reality

As a techncardboardology instructor, one of the best parts about my job is the ability to play with the latest devices and explore ways to integrate them into education. Last year, I was finally able to get my hands on Google Cardboard and experience virtual reality for the first time. While I was intrigued and excited about the possibilities of virtual reality in the classroom, I struggled with finding ways to use it without it seeming gimmicky, a word which I actively try to avoid when presenting new technologies.

Experiencing virtual reality is as fun as it sounds. Plugging in your headphones and placing the viewer on your face transports you to a virtual world. It was fun to watch Paul McCartney perform Live and Let Die (especially the pyrotechnics), or ride a computer generated rollercoaster. I explored Google Maps for places I would soon travel, exploring back streets from the comfort of my couch, immersed in a virtual environment. But in the end, I still found virtual reality to be a novelty, an alternative way to present information, but not as engaging as I hoped it would be. Like all new technologies, the novelty wears off. So how, exactly, can this new technology be used to enhance learning for students? The answer lies in the ability to connect to another person through personal stories.

Working at the American Community School (ACS) in Amman, Jordan, I have the unique opportunity to experience the Syrian refugee crisis on a local level; the Zaatari Refugee Camp is less than an hour from my apartment. Inzaatari-camp the community, you witness the effects that the crisis has had on the Syrians, as well as, the local Jordanian population, which is already stretched for resources. I had the opportunity to visit the Zaatari camp, and even though I’d read about the refugee situation, and personally met refugees, I lacked the empathy to truly understand their plight. Having visited the camp, I now feel a connection to the people, the environment, and the stories I heard while I was there. It’s one thing to read about a place, it’s another thing entirely to go there.

I think that part of the challenge in personally connecting to a story is that so much of the information we receive about the world around us is filtered through various channels, be it articles, reports, interview or documentaries. All of these mediums are great at providing information, but it can be challenging to emotionally connect to the stories you are hearing about, even when they are happening in your own backyard. There is a disconnect between what we know and what we experience.

Recently, I read an article from Wired and began to explore the idea of using virtual reality as a means of developing empathy in students. In my class, I use Design Thinking to help students find solutions to complex problems. The first and most important step of Design Thinking is to empathize with the problem. By personally connecting to the problem that you are trying to solve, you develop a personal interest in resolving the problem. That personal connection is what DesignThinkingsustains the passion and curiosity when inevitable challenges arise. I also find empathy to be the most difficult concept to teach. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes sounds great in theory, but is difficult in practice. One way to connect to, and empathize with, another person is by sharing personal stories. This provides the other person with a better understanding of who you are, and things that you may have in common.

Seeing the potential of virtual reality to tell engaging stories, organizations like Within, NYTVR (the virtual reality department of The New York Times), and IDEO, are using this new form of communication to immerse the viewer into the story, rather than simply relaying information. This emotional, mental, and visceral connection has the potential to transform the way we receive information, allowing us to empathize with the stories these organizations are presenting.   

Using Google Cardboard, I watched Clouds Over Sidra, a video from the Within app, in which a twelve year old Syrian refugee, Sidra, gives us a tour of the Zaatari camp. The video is an immersive experience. Through the Google Cardboard viewfinder, I was able to spin around and see everything that Sidra sees. The headphones project sound from all directions, giving you sense of actually being in the location. Experiencing the camp through Sidra’s eyes and listening to her stories transported me directly into her home and connected me to her world. I could understand her challenges in a personal way because I was right there with her. Even though I have visited the Zaatari camp, I still felt like I was seeing it from an entirely new perspective, giving me valuable insight, and more importantly, a deeper connection to the refugee crisis.

Watching The Fight for Fallujah video from the NYTVR app, I was embedded along with the journalists covering a significant battle in Fallujah. The video felt like watching a mini-documentary, with the journalist narrating the events I was experiencing. Being there, with the citizens and soldiers, as the fighting unfolded felt surreal. I could see and hear things at the same time that they did. As guns fired and explosives detonated, I found myself wanting to duck along with the people in my viewfinder. I could empathize with the trials of war, even though I have never personally had that experience.

Seeing the potential of virtual reality to educate, organizations like IDEO and Stanford University are using virtual reality to create virtual spaces to inform people on topics like reading disorders, in which you experience what it’s like to live in a world where you are unable to read. To highlight the personal struggles of emotional/mental disorders, Stanford University has created videos that simulate the experience of an anxiety attack. These videos allow you to personally experience how another person sees the world, even if for only a few minutes. By using this new technology, large amounts of data can be collected about the emotional impact virtual reality creates on the viewer. There are apps slowly making their way into the marketplace that utilize virtual reality to help develop skills and or even fight phobias. One of my favorite virtual reality apps is called Public Speaking VR. It simulates speaking in front of an audience of various sizes.

Virtual reality apps are beginning to find their niche in the classroom. It was a definite ‘A-ha’ moment for me to make the connection that virtual reality can be a tool to develop empathy in students. I’m excited to see how this new technology can be used to further educate students. More importantly, I’m excited to see students create virtual reality stories of their own, allowing me to visit their unique perspective of the world.

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